Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Book Excerpt: May 27, 1989

The following excerpt is from my book Standoff at Tiananmen, chapter 11, describing the events of May 27, 1989, which in retrospect became one of the pivotal moments of the student movement.

In the morning of May 27, Liu Gang came to Tiananmen Square with a single mission in mind. He had to get the leaders of Headquarters for Defending Tiananmen Square leaders into the conference to discuss a plan for the future. Li Lu had never attended the conference after its first day. He regarded it only as a farce. Occasionally, he sent Chai Ling over so that she could get away and catch some rest during those boring meetings. With his own student parliament backing the headquarters, Li Lu had neither time nor necessity to be involved in the Capital Joint Conference. Liu Gang had come to understand that, for any plan to have a chance, it had to be with the approval of Chai Ling and Li Lu.

But Liu Gang could not persuade Li Lu to attend the meeting this morning. Chai Ling and Feng Congde went with him instead. It happened to be the best attended session in days. There were about a hundred people in a large conference room. Feng Congde, who was a stranger to this scene, recognized many familiar faces. He was surprised to find Wang Dan, absent from Tiananmen Square, playing a central role. But he did not know Wang Juntao, who was there to chair this important proceeding. The agenda was to discuss the second task he had set when he opened the conference four days earlier: a clear and unified goal for the movement.

The meeting opened with Chai Ling briefing on the current situation. To the surprise of many, she gave a depressing account of deterioration. The newcomers from the provinces were out of control. They had started their own organizations to fight with her headquarters for power. Garbage was piling up and the place stank. Chai Ling was exhausted and did not appear at all like a commander-in-chief ready to defend Tiananmen Square. Yang Tao's proposal to vacate the schools was then brought up but received only lukewarm reaction. Wang Dan thought the idea impossible to implement. Wuer Kaixi concurred but added that he would be willing to travel to the provinces himself to drum up popular support for Beijing.

Wang Juntao brought the meeting back to its agenda. A couple of writers in the group had drafted another statement, plainly titled Our Ten-Point Statement regarding the Current Situation. It was a laundry list of their collective opinions and demands. To the great dismay and frustration of Feng Congde and Chai Ling, the intellectuals proceeded to argue hours over fine wording choices point by point. At one instance, a prolonged debate erupted regarding whether to use the phrase "purely spontaneous" or "essentially spontaneous" to describe the origin of the movement. Feng Congde noticed that many of the attendees were dozing off. Now he understood what Li Lu had been saying about this conference.

Wang Juntao ordered Kentucky Fried Chicken for lunch. It was a meal of luxury for most people in the room. Like almost everybody else, Chai Ling had a very favorable impression of Wang Juntao. She found him understanding and supportive. A rare person in this crowd whom she could trust. Wang Juntao had been conscientiously playing out the role of his version of George Washington. He went out of his way to make sure that everybody could have a voice in the conference and avoid making any judgment of his own. He smiled and nodded eagerly even when he was listening to something he thought ridiculous or disagreeable. While his approach was winning friends and keeping the conference together, his all-pleasing style was also frustrating his closer friends. "Unprincipled," many scoffed publicly. Liu Gang worried that frequent changes in Wang Juntao's stance could be costing them precious opportunities.

During the lunch break, they learned that Wan Li, the Chairman of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, had issued a written statement from Shanghai in support of martial law. It was yet another major setback.

The meeting continued in the afternoon on their Ten-Point Statement. The eighth point spelled out that, if an emergency meeting of the National People's Congress Standing Committee was not called, the occupation of Tiananmen Square would continue at least until June 20, the date for a regular meeting of the same committee. There was no objection to this deadline until Feng Congde rose to speak. As the person in charge of finance, he told the conference that it was not financially possible to sustain the occupation for another three weeks. In fact, he did not think it could last even a couple more days. He proceeded to explain how they were running a large deficit. He demanded that the departed Beijing Students Autonomous Federation return donated funds to the Square.

The audience was shocked. For all their grandiose visions of revolution and victory, they had paid little attention to such details as money and bread supply. Under pressure, a student in charge of finance for the Federation promised to release some of its funds right away. But he also claimed that their fund was not large either. With the burn rate Feng Congde cited, it would not come close to sustaining them till June 20.

Wang Juntao did not think the monetary shortfall was a serious threat. Sizable donations from Hong Kong and Taiwan were already on their way. But Feng Congde's numbers coupled with Chai Ling's briefing had already caused the pendulum to swing to the side of an earlier withdrawal. To the dismay of a few die-hards, the conference quickly settled on a withdrawal date of May 30, chosen to give the headquarters a couple of days to prepare. All eyes were turning to Chai Ling. It would be this diminutive but determined commander-in-chief who would have the final say.

Chai Ling was much more exhausted than determined at this very moment. She spoke up quietly and softly. It had been a grueling time for her since the start of the hunger strike. Despite all efforts, the situation at Tiananmen Square was dreadful. She was ready to have all this over. Yes, she told the conference, as she raised her hand, she agreed with the withdrawal plan. Almost everybody else followed. It was noted as an unanimous decision.

It was now late afternoon and they finally finished with their statement. But the meeting was not yet over. Liu Xiaobo, a young professor of literature at Beijing Normal University, suggested that they needed a more visible leader for the movement. One who was to be a public hero or a Chinese Lech Walesa, the famous leader of Polish Solidarity. Only with such a figure, he declared, could this movement unite the people and sustain its civil opposition after withdrawing from Tiananmen Square. He already had a candidate and he immediately nominated Wuer Kaixi for the role to be named as the "Spokesman of the People."

The thirty-four year old Liu Xiaobo had been traveling abroad teaching Chinese philosophy and literature in Norway and the United States. He was visiting Columbia University that spring when he felt an irrepressible urge to join the emerging movement. So he hopped on a plane home. As he was transferring at Tokyo, he learned about the publication of April 26 People's Daily editorial. In a moment of truth, he hesitated between continuing onto Beijing or flying back to New York. Beijing won out.

Back home, he was happy to find students from his school at the center of the storm. Now at the conference, he showered accolades on Wuer Kaixi as a natural leader. Likewise, Wuer Kaixi was ready. He followed up with a speech to claim himself the most charismatic and recognized leader of the movement. He appeared to be well received by the audience.

But Feng Congde was beyond himself. He angrily objected the nomination and accused Wuer Kaixi of being immature, lacking experience, and, worst of all, having a strong tendency to speak for himself in total disregard of rules and regulations. He was referring to the unilateral moves Wuer Kaixi had made at Tiananmen Square that had resulted in his own banishment. To his credit, Wuer Kaixi did not dispute the charges. He defended himself by saying that he could now do a better job with teachers like Liu Xiaobo as his advisers.

That was the last straw. Feng Congde and Chai Ling had no more patience left. They had already spent seven hours in this meeting and it was time to leave. As a parting shot, Chai Ling declared that her Headquarters for Defending Tiananmen Square was no longer on the same page with this conference. As they walked out in disgust, the motion to make Wuer Kaixi the Spokesman of the People was tabled. Wang Juntao rushed out to comfort the angry couple.

Leaving the conference, Feng Congde rushed to Peking University to follow up on funds promised by Beijing Students Autonomous Federation. Chai Ling went back to Tiananmen Square by herself. The images of Liu Xiaobo and Wuer Kaixi lingered in her mind. She had seen too many instances of people trying to wrestle leadership from her. From Beijing Students Autonomous Federation to new arrivals from the provinces, they had always tried to overthrow her headquarters and seize power. Now this Capital Joint Conference, which had backed her just a few days ago, was turning against her as well. As she got closer to Tiananmen Square, Chai Ling started having serious second thoughts about the decision to withdraw in three days.

Tiananmen Square was not her sanctuary on this day either. As she was walking in, the sad realities sank in all at once. It was a dirty and pathetic place. People were tired and angry. A young student marshal came to her in anger and disgust. He told her that he had come from Qingdao, a port city in northeast China. Hundreds of his schoolmates had come together to join the movement. Because of the school uniforms they were wearing, all of them were immediately assigned duties as marshals to work on picket lines protecting the Headquarters for Defending Tiananmen Square. They all worked hard for many days, he told Chai Ling while crying. But what had they witnessed so far? Nothing good, he said. We saw you leaders come and go without doing anything of substance. We saw so much infighting and corruption. We did not see anything good at all! He told Chai Ling that most of his schoolmates had already returned home with profound disappointment. There were only a dozen or so left. Why did he choose to stay? He said, I just did not want to give up. I just wanted to see how bad things could get at the Square and whether our country still had any hope left!

There it was, an echo directly from the Hunger Strike Manifesto Chai Ling had written in her own emotional days. It was almost exactly the same language she had used to inspire hundreds and then thousands to Tiananmen Square. But this time, it came back at her. Her own movement was now turning her followers away. She did not have much to say to this teenager. All of a sudden, she thought of her husband Feng Congde. Commenting on the dreadful state of student infighting, he had once quipped, "Now I understand why Li Peng had to impose martial law." It was sad, depressingly sad.

Chai Ling was happy to see Li Lu, who greeted her at the Monument to People's Heroes. But the nice feeling did not last long. Upon hearing of the withdrawal plan, Li Lu was dumbfounded. "What are you talking about? It has only been two days since three hundred delegates voted to stay in the Square. How can that decision be overturned so quickly? It's against democratic procedures." Chai Ling tried to defend the decision but she was not particularly convincing. Li Lu was getting angrier and angrier by the minute. If they withdrew now, he screamed, it would be impossible to get students together again. The military would have total control. The National People's Congress Standing Committee meeting on June 20, if held at all, would be conducted under bayonets!

By the time Liu Gang and some of the Capital Joint Conference people arrived at Tiananmen Square, he found Chai Ling already had changed her mind. Chai Ling told him that it was Li Lu's call. Liu Gang immediately sought out Li Lu and briefed him on the plan. He emphasized that it was not going to be a total withdrawal, but a strategic diversion to campuses. Li Lu listened politely but showed no emotion. Liu Gang stared at Li Lu's dark sunglasses but could not see his eyes. He knew he had trouble on his hands.

Feng Congde had scheduled a press conference ahead of time and it became a rare occasion of the movement. For once, almost all prominent student leaders were present. At the base of the Monument, Wuer Kaixi, Wang Dan, and Chai Ling were standing in the middle. Li Lu, Zhang Boli, Liu Gang, Wang Juntao, and a group of intellectuals from the Capital Joint Conference sat behind them. There were rows of cameras facing the leaders, ready to record history in the making. Thousands of students and residents gathered behind the reporters. The occasion felt more like a mass assembly than a press conference.

Wuer Kaixi gave a speech first. He had not been seen in public for days and now appeared to have recovered from his illness. There were no more oxygen bags or nurses in tow. Liu Gang had intended to have him as a lead-in to summarize the achievements of the movement. Wuer Kaixi, however, took it as an opportunity for his own comeback. Happy and at ease, he casually launched into a sincere apology for his "bone-headed" move in screaming for withdrawal in the early morning of May 21, which he said might have cost the movement a golden opportunity to unite. His natural charisma won over the crowd. For once, he did not faint.

It was a tough act to follow. When Wang Dan came up next, he appeared to be the opposite of the charming Wuer Kaixi. Stiff and flat, with a pair of oversize glasses blocking almost half of his face, Wang Dan was holding the microphone in his right hand and several sheets of loose paper in his left. He struggled to read as the papers flapped in the wind. It was the long and drawn-out Ten-Point Statement. The crowd, warmed up by Wuer Kaixi, sat back in a subdued mood.

It was not until he reached the eighth point that he was able to catch the attention of his audience. After pausing for a moment, he slowly and softly read on, "It is suggested that the students evacuate Tiananmen Square on May 30." As Wang Dan continued with the statement, students in the crowd were exchanging confused looks and opinions.

Liu Gang got very worried. He spent the time during Wang Dan's speech to write down a detailed withdrawal plan on a piece of paper, mapping out how students would march out of Tiananmen Square. Knowing that most students were from out of town, he instructed them to go to specific local campuses based on the geographic regions where they came from. He handed the plan to Chai Ling who would be speaking next.

As Chai Ling stood up, she had Liu Gang's notes in one hand and took the microphone in the other. She did not bother to take a peek at the notes. Calmly, she stuffed the notes into a side pocket of her jeans and said, "The decision to withdraw on May 30 was not made by our Headquarters for Defending Tiananmen Square. It was not the will of the students at the Square either." Raising her voice, she turned and pointed her finger at Liu Gang, "It was them! It was only the opinion of these so-called elite intellectuals!"

The press conference ended in a confused state. Liu Gang and his fellow "elites" took refuge in a tent and could not contain their anger toward Chai Ling. When the Ten-Point Statement was printed and released publicly the next day, it had already reverted to its original language: "Unless an emergency meeting of the National People's Congress Standing Committee is convened in the next few days, the occupation of the Square will continue at least until June 20."

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